Interview with Apple’s former App Store approval chief offers fascinating insight into the review process

A new interview with Apple’s former head of App Store approvals published today by Bloomberg takes an in-depth look at the app review process over the last decade and the team behind it. The wide-ranging conversation covers the early days from 2009, the growing pains of manually approving apps, why apps are rejected, Apple Watch apps being an “embarrassment” for Apple, and much more.

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman sat down with Phillip Shoemaker, who was the head of App Store approvals from 2009-2016 in an interview for the latest episode of Decrypted. The conversation covers how the app review process initially started out with three people looking at each app before it could be approved.

In the early days, Apple had three reviewers look at each app. That led to long review times, which eventually decreased after the process shifted to one set of eyes, he said. Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing who oversees the App Store, pushed for humans to review all apps, rather than just automated tools, to limit improper or buggy apps, Shoemaker said. Still, he said “there’s a lot of stuff in the store that shouldn’t be there.” Apple declined to comment.

Shoemaker mentioned that he was eventually able to get that requirement down to allow one person to make the call to approve or reject an app, but that there was a lot of training involved and each person on the team had to sit down with him before they were granted that power.

Especially in the early days, Apple was figuring out its policies to approve apps on the fly and some apps slipped through the cracks. The interview covers the controversy that came when the App Store approval team allowed the “Baby Shaker” game to go live on the App Store. Gurman also brought up the “I am Rich” app that was approved and briefly sold for $1,000 before being removed.

Shoemaker took the job seriously and shared how difficult it was for him to reject apps.

“You are what’s stopping an app from getting on the store and potentially making money for this developer to put food on the table and send their kids to school,” Shoemaker said. “It broke my heart every time I had to make those calls.”

Gurman also asked Shoemaker if all developers were truly treated equally or if some received special treatment. Shoemaker said that Steve Jobs was adamant about the rules being applied across the board and added:

“I was calling out Facebook all the time” on Twitter, he said. “Even though they were one of these privileged developers, they had some of the worst code at the time.”

The interview goes on to cover the balance between the first-party apps that Apple offers and how that affects third-party developers.

Nowadays, the company sometimes adds in-house software to the iPhone that is similar to existing offerings from other providers. “There is now a conflict as Apple goes into these spaces that are ripe with competition,” he said. “I’m really worried about the competition.”

Another interesting tidbit was about Apple Watch apps. Shoemaker noted that they have always been somewhat of an “embarrassment” at Apple with a notable lack of interest from developers. Apple is expected to unveil a dedicated Apple Watch App Store along with watchOS 6 at WWDC that could potentially help turn things around.

The whole interview offers a fascinating look behind the scenes at Apple and is definitely worth a listen.

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Avatar for Michael Potuck Michael Potuck

Michael is an editor for 9to5Mac. Since joining in 2016 he has written more than 3,000 articles including breaking news, reviews, and detailed comparisons and tutorials.